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The Past Life of Cressing Temple

In the Granary at Cressing Temple on the ground floor is a room known as the Court Hall. In here, housed in two cases is an exhibition that I designed and built some years ago on the history and archaeology of the site. These pages use the text to give you a brief summary of the past life of Cressing Temple from the Bronze Age to modern times.


The history of Cressing Temple begins in the year 1137 when Queen Matilda, wife of King Stephen granted the lands of Cressing to the Order of the Knights Templar. However men had been living in the valley for many thousands of years before then. Archaeological excavations carried out in the late 20th century have discovered that as far back as the Bronze Age the land was drained and fenced and farmed and ancient peoples made their home here.

How do we know all this?

Before reading through these pages this is a valid question. The starting point for all research is with the documentary evidence. Researchers have been able to go back to the 12th century to discover the roots of the site and the Templar and Hospitaller inventories (lists) give a good picture of what was here then. However historical sources are not to be relied on. History is the written record of the past and it can be coloured by personal opinion, politics or orders from above. Archaeology is the physical record of the past and archaeologists make informed decisions on what the finds mean in terms of use, date, wealth, status and occupation.

At Cressing Temple one of the main reasons for undertaking the excavations is that there is no pictorial record of the site until 1794 despite it always having been very important to the local economy. How big was the Templar site and the Hospitallers preceptory and how magnificent was the Tudor Greate House? These are all questions that only archaeology can answer.

The structured series of academic excavations combined with the 'watching briefs' on the essential works to modernise the site have led us to a clearer picture of the evolution of the site.

The Essex County Council excavations began in 1987 and ran until 1996 when it was felt that the site had been fully modernised. Small works to lay drains and new cables still have to have Scheduled Monuments Consent from the Department of Culture Media and Sport and a watching brief organised. This is done by the Historic Environment Branch (Archaeology) of Essex County Council.

Archaeology at Cressing Temple

Archaeological records are often described as palimpsests. A palimpsest is a document that has been written over again and again until the original is completely obscured. Archaeologists use stratigraphic analysis and dating sequences to sort out one period of activity from another. This is then compared to any historical records to see if there are any corresponding events to explain the archaeological discoveries. The plan below shows all the features unearthed regardless of their age.

The excavated features at CT

The earliest recorded excavations were undertaken in the 1930's and made the pages of the Times newspaper. However the reports are confused and serve only to show how 'historical accounts' do not always reflect the archaeological facts.

The north cellar at Cressing Temple

In the 1960's the cellar (shown in the photo above) just west of the site of the chapel was re-opened by Roy Martin who was a farmworker at Cressing Temple. This time it was bottomed and a complicated series of drains was discovered. Roy, seen here in the cellar, became the site warden when the site was bought by the County Council.

Plan of the BVAS digs at Cressing Temple

BVAS Excavations.
In 1979 to 1981 The Brain Valley Archaeological Society undertook four areas of excavation. The main one uncovered the chapel, the cellar and the stairtower. To the south the stone chamber was revealed. This was the starting point for the following excavation programme.

The remains of the cellar  at Cressing Temple

Greate House Excavations.
The focus of the archaeological study at Cressing Temple in the 1990's was the understanding of the Templar and Hospitaller buildings and how they were incorporated into the Tudor Mansion. The kitchen, chamber and cellar were uncovered and the deep drains revealed. The steps down into the cellar had been robbed out but the sub-structure remained.

Brick pavement in the Walled Garden.

Walled Garden Excavations.
The Walled Garden was comprehensively excavated over four years with 16 trenches being taken down to the natural. The Tudor pavement with its later slots for allotments planting was built over the site of the Hospitaller chapel yard. They in turn had disturbed the sleep of a Romano-britain buried with his head on his feet.

Historic Buildings Studies.
The knowledge gained from the excavations is combined with the archaeological studies of the standing buildings and with the documentary research. Where there are good concurrences of facts and features strong conclusions can be drawn. Otherwise only the bare facts are recorded in the hope that future work may shed light on them. At Cressing Temple the excavations are recorded in CRESSING TEMPLE, A Templar and Hospitaller Manor in Essex (1993) available from Essex County Council.

The Field School.
The Field School at Cressing Temple was started in 1994 by site archaeologists Tim Robey and Barry Hillman-Crouch in response to the need for a local training scheme for people interested in field work. The school was open to all but it soon became popular with students doing their degrees. The excavations were important to the understanding of the site and especially the development of the 'Greate House'.

When the research program within the scheduled monument ceased the emphasis of the excavations moved to Dovehouse Field and the Iron Age to Romano-British presence. The Essex County Council Field Archaeology Unit took over the running of the school and the students have done much valuable work uncovering the archaeological remains of the earliest settlements. If you are interested in the work at Cressing Temple and that of the Historic Environment Branch (Archaeology) Section then log on to - Enjoying Essex - Heritage to see the latest news.





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